Expressive Forms And The Evolution Of Consciousness Research Paper

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Expression, from the Latin exprimere (to push out, or to squeeze), will be used in this context to refer to behavior that appears to be motivated by the desire of organisms to enact salient internal states in public form; in other words, to express some important aspect of their being so as to make it accessible to oneself and to others. Taking a comparative perspective, one might see a continuity of expressive forms going back to such performances as the purring of a cat, the wagging of a dog’s tail, or a peacock’s display of tail feathers signaling its desirability as a healthy mate.

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In human groups, expressive practices take on a variety of forms ranging from music and dance to fashions in food and in clothing, and they are essential components of any culture. It is true that, as Dante Alighieri wrote over six centuries ago in De Monarchia ‘ … in every action … the main intention of the agent is to express his own image; thus it is that every doer, whenever he acts, enjoys (delectatur) the doing; because everything that is desires to be, and in action the doer unfolds his being, enjoyment naturally follows, for a thing desired always brings delight … Therefore nothing acts without making its self-manifest’ (Alighieri 1921 1317, I, 13, author’s translation). Yet some actions are more expressive of the individuality of the actor than others. In fact most ‘instrumental’ activities such as work, childcare, and housework are over determined by bodily needs or social expectations, and thus afford little opportunity to bring out the unique characteristics of the individual. Thus, parallel to instrumental activities there arise ‘expressive’ forms, mostly in the leisure sphere of life, the purpose of which is primarily to make the self-evident, and—as Dante observed—to provide enjoyment in the process. But this does not mean that such forms are arbitrary or fortuitous. Although expressivity is treated often as if it had no function and no adaptive purpose, it is more useful to begin exploring this phenomenon without making such an assumption, and to see what can be learned by starting instead with the premise that expressive forms, like other widespread human institutions, have been shaped by selective forces impinging on the human condition over time.

1. The Origins Of Expressive Forms

Sometime between 500 and 1,000 centuries ago, after the brain had passed a threshold of complexity that allowed for speech to develop, our ancestors began to emancipate their mental life from the genetic instructions that had controlled their thoughts and emotions according to the script laid down by natural selection during the previous millennia. The mind emerged from the brain as people started to share their experiences, leading to a quantum jump in the information available to each individual.

Every living being needs to get reasonably accurate information about its environment in order to survive. In different species a vast number of sensory modalities have evolved to provide such a function, from incredibly sensitive olfactory organs to vision and to ecolocation. In addition, many species have developed systems of communication that allow information to be transmitted from one individual to another. Bees do it by wiggling their bodies in flight, ants by releasing chemical signals, and prairie dogs by whistling warning calls that identify sources of danger. This makes it possible for a perceptual datum observed by a single organism to be immediately available to the rest of the group, even when none of the other members have direct access to the source of information. The significance of sensory organs, and even more of communication, is that they allow individuals to interact with the environment vicariously, creating a space between themselves and potential dangers or opportunities. Eyesight makes it possible to detour around obstacles without bumping into them every time. Instead of getting ill before learning which berries are poisonous, one can avoid the pain by heeding a warning.

In his pioneering writings on ‘evolutionary epistemology,’ the psychologist Donald Campbell described the evolution of systems of knowledge, starting with sensory organs (Campbell 1974). As language developed, information was no longer dependent on the actual presence of a sensory stimulus. With the help of words, it became possible to evoke in the mind objects and events that had happened in the past, or that never happened in reality. Eventually, single events were fashioned into songs and stories: then myths emerge as the first knowledge systems. Their function was to justify a global attitude towards reality, connecting and explaining the otherwise fragmented everyday experiences, so as to allow individuals to act as if they understood what life was about. After myths, religions, political ideologies, philosophical systems, and theories have played the same role. According to Campbell, the latest step in this evolutionary process has been the emergence of the scientific method, which lifts vicarious experiencing to an entirely new level: In the laboratory, one can learn about reality without having to incurr undesirable consequences. If we make mistakes, theories can die in our stead.

As a result of these developments, the human mind has become increasingly shaped by data that were given meaning and that were transmitted by other human beings; in other words, by cultural information. It is useful to think of units of knowledge passed down through culture as memes (Dawkins 1976) to highlight several similarities they share with genes: memes control behavior, they are selected differentially and those that are selected are transmitted to the following generation. Of course, there are also glaring differences between genes and memes, yet focusing on the similarities is revealing and helpful in explaining human behavior.

1.1 The Emergence Of Consciousness

It is likely that prior to the spread of memes our ancestors had no reason to experience their individuality as separate from the ongoing stream of events. Whatever they saw or felt prompted directly a visceral reaction dictated by the genetic program without the conscious mediation of a ‘self.’ The contents of the mind were inevitable and true. But as more and more of the information processed in the mind related to virtual as opposed to sensory data, it became possible to question the truth of one’s knowledge—especially after the first ‘urban revolutions’ taking place around 6000 BC allowed people from different cultures to live together in proximity, thus challenging each other’s’ assumptions about the world. One consequence of doubt induced by the proliferation of memes has been the necessity for the brain to develop a mechanism for evaluating competing information, a faculty generally known as self-reflective consciousness. Having to decide which experiential datum to trust leads to the conclusion that there is someone who evaluates and decides; hence there develops the notion of a self as the arbiter of experience. From an evolutionary perspective, the Cartesian cogito could be rephrased as ‘I wonder, therefore I am.’

The self, thus, separates individuals from the social and environmental matrix in which they had been embedded seamlessly. In reflecting on what this self is, one becomes aware of individual differences, due to the genetic and memetic uniqueness of each mind. Each person learns to identify with the peculiar configuration of traits inherited either through genes, or through the memes learned in the particular sociocultural milieu of early development. In cultures that share a ‘Western’ historical trajectory a differentiated individuality has taken an increasingly central importance; in those of an ‘Eastern’ tradition the integration of the person in the social context is seen as relatively more important. In every culture, however, the self is experienced as both differentiated and unique, and as integrated and related to others, even though the relative importance of these dimensions may be reversed from one culture to the next, depending on the overall pattern of adaptative responses (i.e., the economic, political, social, and cultural institutions that a given culture develops over time).

2. The Expression Of Individuality

Reflecting on its own contents, consciousness beholds its uniqueness. But this subjective experience is not quite ‘real’ even to the experiencing person, and quite unsubstantial to anyone else. Hence the necessity to express this potential identity so that it may acquire a tangible reality. Uniqueness, however, is not the only trait of the self. It has been said that while in some respects each person is like no one else in the world, in other respects they are more like some people than others, and in still other respects they are like everyone else. Thus, expressive forms rarely embody only the actor’s unique characteristics, but tend to express also their belonging to a community or human type.

If one considers the arts, for instance, which are among the most universal expressive forms, it is not accidental that each of them is the medium for one of the seven ‘intelligences’ that Gardner (1983) claims are supported by different neurological brain circuitry, and that are distributed unequally in the population. These include musical, linguistic, bodily-kinesthetic, visual, numerical, intrapersonal and interpersonal intelligences (plus possibly some other less well documented ones). It is easy to see the correspondence between the first four and the art-forms of music, literature, dance or athletics, and the visual arts. But also mathematics, introspection, and sociopolitical involvement, when reflecting the peculiar identity and strengths of a person, can be seen as an expressive form in its own right.

Taking the case of music as an example, it is reasonably well documented that some children start life with above-average sensitivity to sound. For them it is easier to express individuality through making music. According to Pantev et al. (1998), compared with average people, 25 percent more of the auditory cortex of musicians is devoted to processing music, suggesting a more complex cortical discrimination and representation of sound patterns. By contrast young artists are able to represent mentally shapes and figural relationships much better than nonartists, excelling at such tasks as spatial visualization (Getzels and Csikszentmihalyi 1974).

Most artists discover their ‘gift’ accidentally early in life. All children draw and paint, but the sketches and cartoons of future artists attract more attention than those by other children. As a result, they draw even more. Slowly, this special trait begins to be seen by the child and by others as a central feature of the self. At that point causality becomes reciprocal: drawing builds the self, and the self requires drawing to express itself. There is no reason to doubt that other artistic careers follow the same pattern.

While musicians, artists, and athletes are among the few who make a career of their expressive skills, each person experiences the need to display their individuality, and does so on a less formal basis. Often, as is the case with cosmetics, hairstyle, and dress, what is being expressed is not any actual trait of the person, but rather an ideal image of the self that the person aspires to. Although some scholars, such as Goffman (1974), interpret these forms as nothing but attempts intended to impressan audience, there is no reason not to see in them also a need to express, in other words, to see them as genuine gestures essential to the person’s psychological integrity.

Music is perhaps the most universal medium for externalizing one’s subjective states. Especially in adolescence, playing and listening to music helps give form to the bewildering emotions that alternate so rapidly each day at that stage of life. In a study of urban American families, when asked which objects in the home were the most important, the majority of teenagers (46 percent) mentioned stereo sets—more than any other object—as opposed to 18 percent of their parents and only 6 percent of their grandparents. The following is a typical answer from a teenager as to why the stereo is so important: ‘Because when I’m not real happy and gay, I turn it on and it makes me happy again … it helps me recover … from bad days’ (Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1981, p. 71).

A similar effect is achieved through some forms of writing, such as diaries and poetry. Words are not linked neurologically to feelings as music is, thus they are less concrete embodiments of emotion. They compensate for this by leaving a more permanent trace, which makes it easier to reflect and build cognitively on what one has written. Again as with music, poetry and other forms of subjective writing are practiced most widely in late adolescence, when identity formation becomes a salient issue (Erikson 1950). Persons become transparent to themselves in part by writing down what transpires inside.

‘Lifestyle choices’ also act as media for externalizing certain images of the self. Of these, we may mention four recurrent types: the heroic, the holy, the homey, and the hedonic. Together, they account for a large proportion of the forms people use to express their self through behavior patterns. The heroic lifestyle has a long tradition, going back to Homeric Greece and beyond. In our times it is manifested in sports, in high-risk activities such as climbing the highest peak on each continent in sequence, and less flamboyantly in workaholism or other feats of endurance. What may be called the holy lifestyle expresses itself in self-sacrifice, abnegation, helping others. These gestures of denial, if indeed a manifestation of the self, are presumably as pleasurable to the actor as they appear unpleasant to those watching from the outside. A homey lifestyle expresses a self-bound to kin and hearth; it manifests itself through domesticity and what the French call le petit bonheur. Finally, the hedonic form is the one chosen by those who identify themselves with a sensate life, whether through their knowledge of fine vintages or through rowdy behavior at the neighborhood saloon.

Expressions of individuality are also achieved through the arrangement of artifacts in one’s living space. The symbolic ecology of the home is almost evenly split between objects that signify the unique traits of the owner’s self, and those that refer to its integration with the social context (Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1981). Examples of the former are musical instruments, sports equipment, tools, cameras, camping gear, favorite books. By looking at them, using them, and showing them off, a person can literally objectify important dimensions of the self.

3. Expressiveness And Social Integration

If what makes a person unique ordinarily is invisible, so are those dimensions of their being which are shared with others. Because the relationship of the self to the social milieu is not self-evident, in every culture there have arisen behavioral practices that express in concrete form the ties that bind the individual to the community and to the natural environment, thus helping to reify the second essential dimension of what it means to be a person.

3.1 Musical Expression

Music, which is processed in the right auditory cortex of the brain (in contrast to listening to words, which activates the left side) and simultaneously by the limbic system where emotions are produced (Carter 1998, p. 148), is one of the most ancient and powerful means for expressing subjective states. The reason for this is that certain combinations of sounds are believed to stimulate pleasure centers in the brain, providing experiences similar to those produced by ‘a cocktail of recreational drugs’ (Pinker 1997, p. 528). This neurological resonance between sounds and feelings has been exploited by every culture, generating an enormously rich variety of musical forms ranging from the beating of drums around the campfire to rock festivals and symphonic concerts.

Communal festivities generally are focused on music, singing, and dancing; it is by experiencing the harmony of one’s voice joined to that of others that Durkheim (1965 1915) believed our ancestors reached that state of ‘collective effervescence’ which proved to them the existence of a collective entity greater than the individual, and hence laid down the belief in the supernatural which eventuated in religion. A typical example of music used to achieve this feeling of communion is Turnbull’s description of how the Pygmies of the Congo play their molimo trumpets and sing in order to express a relationship with the forest they inhabit and which provides for all their needs: ‘So when something goes wrong, like illness or bad hunting or death, it must be because the forest is sleeping and not looking after its children. So what do we do? We wake it up. We wake it up by singing to it, and we do this because we want it to awaken happy … when our world is going well then also we sing to the forest because we want to share our happiness’ (Turnbull 1962, p. 92).

Other uses for music as a vehicle for expressing integration are work-songs which establish a common rhythm of physical activity and attentional focus among laborers. The historian William McNeil has explored in great detail the history of music in the service of warfare: from the great horns of ancient warriors to pipes and drums, sounds have always been used to intimidate the enemy or mark the step of marching armies.

One question raised by the ubiquitous availability of recorded sound is whether the emotional impact of music is going to decline with time. Moving through the day from music on the alarm-clock radio to the car, to the muzak in the elevator, to the tunes in the supermarket—it is likely that the mind will reach a point of saturation which will make it insensitive to beautifully produced sound.

3.2 Visual Forms

As is the case with music, the brain seems to have inbuilt preferences for certain patterns of visual stimuli. Gestalt psychologists and estheticians have examined what makes lines, shapes, colors, and forms enjoyable to look at (Arnheim 1969,Gombrich 1979). According to some neurologists, the primary function of the visual cortex is to construct consistencies in the visual field, with the aim of obtaining useful knowledge about the world. Responding to ‘the brain’s incessant demand for constancy’ (Zeki 1997, p. 86), visual artists search for the most essential and lasting features of the environment, and represent them so that they can be shared. From earliest times, cultures have exploited the potentialities of visual data to communicate the individual’s link with the community.

Among these are body-paintings, or carvings incised on a person’s face or torso. According to Levi-Strauss (1961), who studied some of the most isolated Amazonian tribes of South America, such tattoos and paintings locate the individual who wears them within the kinship network by providing the equivalent of a social map worn on the body, thus transforming the biological animal into a social person. Preliterate cultures have developed an enormous variety of practices equivalent in purpose, ranging from feathered head-dresses to masks, from Nuer spears to Maori canoes, from Hopi katchina dolls to the carvings on Melanesian homes. Through traditional visual symbols the person who owns such artifacts is linked to the community, to ancestors, and to the gods themselves.

Dress is used everywhere as favorite vehicle of expression. In traditional cultures, folk costumes can identify a person’s native village as well as their status. Uniforms are an indication of the person’s allegiance to a particular religious or ideological group. The Italian language neatly illustrates the way uniforms can express both the differentiation and integration of the self: the single noun ‘uniform’ can be translated into that language by two terms with opposite connotations: divisa, which indicates the fact that the clothes differentiate the person from most others; and uniforme, which like its English equivalent brings attention to the person belonging to a group. So ‘the Boy Scout uniform’ could be translated as divisa if one wanted to stress the difference between scouts and everyone else, or as uniforme to stress the appearance of conformity with other scouts. In reality it is almost impossible to imagine an expressive device that would only serve to differentiate a person; it would also point to the group that person belonged to. A teenager may want to show their individuality by piercing tongue, nose, nipple, and other body parts in a pattern never attempted before; nevertheless, their display would inevitably associate them with the subset of teens who go in for such body art.

Fashion in clothes also serves the same purposes as a uniform (or divisa). Men and women who keep track of trends in haute couture do so in order to make sure that their appearance will reflect belonging to the right social set, while setting themselves apart from the masses. Similarly teenagers in urban gangs signal their affiliation through their clothing; a baseball cap worn with the visor forward could cost one’s life in a neighborhood where the visor must be turned backward. Specialized symbols—such as flags, coats of arms, the sign of the cross worn on Crusaders’ tunics, or swastikas on the SS’s sleeves—also express group affiliation, and often imply a life-and-death commitment to a cause.

In the objects people choose for their homes, those that signify belonging to a kinship, ethnic, or elective group are among the most cherished. In a study, typical urban Americans, the largest number of objects (1,207) were mentioned as being special because they reminded the respondents of immediate family members (vs. 1031 objects referring to unique qualities of the self ). Furniture, textiles, glassware, canvases, and statuettes that crowd the home tend to derive their value not so much because of their price-tags but because of the relationships they embody (Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1981). The self of the owner is made manifest through a quilt sewn by a grandmother, a sofa where the children were weaned, a landscape purchased during the honeymoon, a Bible with the fading names of one’s ancestors and their birth dates.

Visual expression achieves its highest form in the arts of architecture, sculpture, painting, and contemporary derivatives like photography, film, and videos. The status of ‘art’ is claimed by objects that provoke in the viewer experiences that are rarely felt in everyday life—such as awe, sorrow, surprise, mystery, and transcendence. In practice, what is to be considered art is decided by a cultural elite who control the public expression of information—Popes and prelates in the Renaissance, in our time the 10,000 aficionados of the ‘painted world’ in Manhattan of whom Tom Wolfe wrote. Nevertheless, objects that achieve the status of art tend to be those that help bring out in the viewer valued elements of the self that usually are unavailable to consciousness.

Taking advantage of the power of visual art to attract the attention of viewers, individuals and institutions have used its forms to broadcast messages intended to advance their special interests. For example in Western Europe the Church was able through the iconography of the Annunciation, Nativity, Holy Family, Crucifixion, Deposition, Resurrection, Last Judgment, and similar themes with universal appeal repeated in thousands of frescoes, paintings, and sculptures, to reify in visual form the tenets of its doctrine. Later sovereigns and wealthy merchants became adept at inserting their own propaganda in the great art of their times (Freedberg 1989). Currently advertising and marketing exploit the power of visual expression for frankly commercial ends.

3.3 Literary Forms

At first, extrasomatic recording of data, that is, the use of writing to complement word-of-mouth as a way of sharing information, was employed primarily to record taxes, laws, and other instrumental transactions. The first available inscriptions from China or Mesopotamia list bushels of grain, numbers of pigs, and the lapidary decrees of rulers. Eventually, however, all around the world people discover the potential of writing for expressing more subtle aspects of reality— deeds, desires, fears, and feelings—often attributed to gods, mythical beings, or imaginary heroes (Csikszentmihalyi 1990).

Like the other forms of expression, literature makes manifest both the individual uniqueness of the writer, as well as their affiliation with a particular culture. It has been argued, for instance, that the Sagas of Iceland were an essential means for the inhabitants of the frozen outposts to keep their identity and hope in the isolated wilderness (Johnson 1930). During the recently ended decades of Soviet occupation, the population of Eastern Europe similarly turned to poets and novelists to preserve its national identity and a vision of the future.

3.4 Bodily Expression

For people lacking written language and elaborate visual representation, the movements of the body (often accompanied by music) provide the richest form of expression. Dance until recently was primarily a ritual medium demonstrating virility, femininity, sexuality, hospitable or hostile attitudes sanctioned by the culture’s world-view. On every continent ritual dances often lasting several days relied on complex choreography to remind the participants of the sacred mysteries of the culture. As with other art forms, during the last few centuries dance largely has 1eft its ritual context behind, and developed instead its own esthetics. This resulted in much more varied and complex movements and choreographies, although arguably accompanied by an impoverishment in the substance being communicated.

The face is without doubt the part of the body most adapted to express inner states. Infants orient themselves automatically towards faces, and especially the eyes, which in many cultures are known as ‘windows to the soul.’ Except for persons suffering from prosopagnosia, most people can recognize basic emotions like anger, fear, or surprise from facial expressions. Apparently, Australian aborigines or New Guinea tribesmen have no trouble identifying these expressions from photographs of American people (Ekman et al. 1969). Of all forms of expression, the articulation of facial muscles is the most widespread. Practically each moment we externalize our subjective states, as well as providing a running commentary on relationships by showing empathy or rejection. Actors and mimes carry this universal ability into highly regarded art forms.

Athletic performances also have a very long tradition of serving expressive functions. In the Olympic Games, the athlete’s prowess was a highly admired sign of individual excellence, but even more it was an indication of the greatness of the community to which the victor belonged. In the Mayan ball games, teams competed for several days in a contest that echoed mythical battles among gods and often ended in the ceremonial slaying of the losing players. While professional sports still retain some elements of the sacred and the communal, as shown by the quasitribal antics of spectators at soccer and football games, more and more they express only the team owner’s purchasing power.

4. The Evolutionary Adaptiveness Of Expressive Forms

There is no question that the ability to express oneself and to read others’ expressions is extremely useful as a means of both self-knowledge and communication. In the first place, the information thus gained helps individuals to achieve psychic integrity and facilitates interaction. Without means of exploring one’s inner life and sharing it with others, life feels arid and constrained. According to the sociologist Schwartz (1987), a major cause of juvenile unrest in American suburbs is the lack of opportunities for teenagers who live constantly hemmed in by adult institutions to express themselves in forms appropriate to their needs.

It is also important to note that, as Dante intimated, the process of making the self manifest is profoundly enjoyable. Almost any action, as long as it is perceived by the actor to be the genuine expression of an inner reality, is experienced as worth doing for its own sake. Thus, the ubiquitous expressive forms that exist in every culture and define its character—arts, poetry, music, ritual, athletic events—are performed voluntarily, often without expectation of any reward, just because they are enjoyable to do.

However, according to a strictly biological perspective, a form must contribute to the inclusive fitness of the individual for it to qualify as being selected by evolution. Unless a behavior helps a person’s genes to be reproduced in subsequent generations, there is no call to invoke the evolutionary paradigm. Do expressive forms meet this definition? Most scholars would give a negative answer. Pinker, for instance, adamantly states that the arts are not biologically adaptive (Pinker 1997 p. 526). In a dissenting opinion, Blakmore argues that actors, poets, dancers, athletes, singers, and other specialists in expression do indeed have a head start reproducing their genes. She suggests that as memes and genes began to coevolve, individuals who had a greater facility in using the emerging symbols became more successful and thus had a better chance attracting mates. Their offspring in turn would be more likely to inherit the symbolic facility, have better access to mates, and so on (Blackmore 1999).

However, the importance of expressive forms does not depend on whether they help some germ lines survive at the expense of others. As evolution has increasingly been about the transmission of memes, it is now possible to pass on songs, paintings, verses, and dances from one mind to another, without having to implicate genetic transmission in the process. This makes it possible for consciousness to be enriched beyond the constraints of its biological limitations, while at the same time opening up radically new opportunities for enjoying the expression of its own complexity.


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